Jamie Harrison, the Democratic challenger to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham in one of this election season’s most unexpectedly tight races, has been running an advertisement warning against a third-party candidate who is “too conservative” for longtime Republican bastion South Carolina and who “supported Trump from day one”.
What the advertisement – part of a media blitz buoyed by Harrison’s record-breaking three-month $57m campaign haul announced in early October – does not say is the candidate in question, Bill Bledsoe, dropped out of the race in early October and endorsed incumbent Graham.
Bledsoe’s name, however, is still set to appear on the ballot in South Carolina, and if enough deep-red conservatives vote for him in the state, where analysts say registered Republicans generally outnumber registered Democrats by about 200,000, Harrison may see a narrow path to victory.
The apparent political feint embodies Harrison’s pin-point strategy, as he seeks to capitalise on anti-Graham sentiment that has energised Democrats, while simultaneously benefitting from Trump supporters who question Graham’s bonafide. The president has received higher support from Republicans in the state than Graham.
“It’s threading the needle of Graham not being believed [in his Trump support] by a small segment of the GOP base and highly mobilising the Democratic vote base. That’s why we have this race being as competitive as it is,” Todd Shaw, a professor of Political Science and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina, told Al Jazeera, adding there is only a “tiny sliver” of voters unaffiliated with a party in the state.
The success of Harrison, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, in recent weeks has moved from a longshot to a very real, if arduous, possibility, according to analysts, with several polls conducted in late September showing the two candidates in a dead heat.
The Cook Political Report, in early October, labelled the race one of just seven Senate contests considered a “toss-up”.
Most recently, a New York Times/Siena College poll showed a slightly wider margin, with Graham ahead by six points, with a 4.5 percent margin of error. The newspaper noted: “The Senate race, though, may be even more competitive because the survey finds that 12 percent of Black voters are undecided, a vote share that is likely to favor Mr. Harrison, who is African American.”
Hmmm… Jaime Harrison has a new ad airing in Charleston today.
"But beware, right-wing Constitution Party candidate Bill Bledsoe is also on the ballot. Bledsoe opposes all abortions and Bledsoe supported Trump from Day One…Bledsoe's too conservative for South Carolina." pic.twitter.com/rW4rLQDq3o
— Jacob Rubashkin (@JacobRubashkin) October 17, 2020
Harrison, who has detailed his experience growing up poor before receiving a scholarship to study at Yale, has framed his attempt to unseat Graham as closing the book on the “old South”, with its slave-owning and segregationist legacy, and writing a “brand new book called the ‘New South’” that is more inclusive and diverse.
In that respect, Harrison is running a campaign very much in the vein of Democrats Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, who built diverse coalitions and rode a blue wave to narrow losses in southern Republican strongholds during their gubernatorial races in 2018.
“Arguably – he wouldn’t frame it this way – but it’s sort of the Obama coalition, but it’s the Obama coalition plus,” said Shaw. “It’s the hope that turning out enough younger voters, enough college-educated voters, college-educated women, minority voters to be effective for victory in this state.”
While Harrison has sought to portray his prominence in the race as more than a referendum of Graham, the incumbent’s missteps have made him ripe for bipartisan criticism.
The discontent from both sides largely stems from Graham’s about-face on Trump, flipping from a so-called “never-Trump” Republican and one of the president’s most ardent critics to one of his most vocal defenders.
Critics, especially within the Democratic ranks, have also been energised by Graham’s flip on confirming Supreme Court nominees, vehemently opposing confirming Obama’s nominee during the election year of 2016, only to support moving forward with the confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court pick just weeks before the 2020 election. Graham is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“How good is your word?” Harrison asked Graham during an October 3 debate, in a pointed rebuke of his position change. His campaign announced soon after that it had raised $340,000 during the debate and the following hour.
That prolific fundraising has already made Harrison’s run historic, allowing him to flood the state with advertisements introducing himself to voters and slamming Graham.
If he wins, South Carolina would also become the first state with two Black Senators, as he would join Republican Tim Scott in the chamber.
For their part, South Carolina Republican officials have maintained that Harrison’s chances for success have been unrealistically inflated by donations from outside the state. They say the candidate does not reflect the ideological makeup of South Carolina.
“It’s purely a function of money and his ability to buy name recognition early on. But as the campaign has worn on, as his television campaign has worn on, he has shown no connection to the voters in terms of the issues that are relevant and matter the most,” South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick told Politico.
Shaw, however, noted that while Republicans maintain a solid majority, “there’s always been this argument that South Carolina is more purple than red”, with the state’s Black residents, who traditionally vote Democratic, making up one-third of the population. College-educated residents who come to the state for jobs in health, education, and the automotive industry, have also guaranteed Democratic candidates have historically maintained solid support if falling short of striking distance, he said.
If Harrison does manage a victory, Shaw added, it will be an indicator of just how significant an anticipated Democratic wave will be on November 3.
“If Harrison wins in South Carolina, it’s clear that the Democrats have a solid majority in the US Senate in 2021,” he said. “It is clearly a Democratic tsunami, rather than a wave.”